Harawira and Brash: Messiahs or madmen?

By Deborah Coddington

Don Brash. Photo / Janna Dixon
Don Brash. Photo / Janna Dixon

Hone Harawira, champion of the poor and downtrodden. Don Brash, darling of the rich and successful. They burn with a desire to lift this country's fortunes - and to upset the political applecart. Deborah Coddington spent time with the two men in this momentous week in politics.

This week marks seven months from polling day, November 26. Yesterday Hone Harawira launched his Mana Party and announced he would be seeking a new mandate in his Te Tai Tokerau electorate. He is forcing a byelection.

On the same day Dr Don Brash, in an unprecedented move, was as a member of the Act Party - after he rolled Rodney Hide as its leader.

While the Prime Minister is on the other side of the world, his support partners - Act and the Maori Party - wrestle with problems that may determine whether or not National is returned to the government benches. Even with its apparently insurmountable lead in the polls, National could be in trouble if it loses its support partners this year.

How so? Dr Jon Johansson, political scientist, Victoria University, sees the Mana Party having a similar effect to Bob Jones' New Zealand Party in the 1984 election, which took votes off National and allowed Labour to win.

"I think we'll see the Maori Party conceivably left with just Tariana Turia or Te Ururoa Flavell," Johannson says.

"Is that good for Maori? I don't know, I really don't know how to answer that."

"It was absolutely inevitable Hone would go because it was fantasy when the Maori Party signed with National.

"The party's stated ambition was to position itself as the Treaty partner, but to do that you need to have all Maori behind you - and only 50 per cent of Maori are even on the Maori roll," he says.

If the Maori Party is effectively wiped out, and Brash bleeds away votes from National, the Government could be left with a big challenge.

The centrist populism that has proved so successful for John Key could be hard to maintain with Brash pushing harder for further economic liberalisation and a place at the top table.

Retired National MP Paul East would be unhappy if Harawira split the Maori vote and wiped out the Sharples/Turia party. East has been happy to have the Maori Party as a balance to Act's more extreme policies.

"It would be sad to take away from that present image of theNational Party appealing to a wide political spectrum."

But he believes the Brash takeover of Act will help protect votes for the centre-right. "Polling tells us Epsom voters were not going to vote for Hide even if directed," he says. "It's important those votes are not lost to the present government."

To the traditional old parties, Harawira and Brash are the clowns taking over the circus. One would take from the rich and give to the poor; the other would shudder at the thought of such forced redistribution of wealth and argues we can simply bake a bigger economic pie.

From the left and from the right, they both threaten to chip away John Key's mandate.

The activist who rides like a rock star

Scream like you've seen a rock star or wave a Tino Rangatiratanga flag.

These are the instructions given (mostly in jest) when I'm sent to Auckland airport to meet the leader of New Zealand's newest political party - the Mana Party.

Mana-it means prestige, authority, charisma.

Hone Pani Tamati Waka Nene Harawira, 56, has mana.

He steps off a flight from Tauranga into a black sedan fluttering two Tino flags from the dark-tinted rear windows, oblivious to curious stares, and heads towards Maori Television to record a session with his mate Willie Jackson. Presidential-style travel comes naturally to this politician.

In the two months since parting company with the Maori Party, Harawira's been travelling all over New Zealand mobilising support for his party.

He ran an open and democratic online poll calling for name suggestions - including The Force, Mokopuna, Maui, Kaitiaki, Iwi - but in the end they settled on Mana.

Harawira was always the enfant terrible in the Maori Party, the one who caused co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia to make apologies. There was the skiving off to Paris when he should have been with the rest of the taxpayer-funded Speakers' tour in Europe, and his arrogant dismissal of "white motherf*****" critics.

Then in August 2010 he was accused of racism when he said he wouldn't be happy with his children dating Pakeha.

But the fight with his own party was sparked by a column he wrote for a Sunday paper, taking his colleagues to task for being too close to National; for not allowing him to take potshots at their coalition partner over National Government policies that affected Maori Party supporters.

Harawira's colleague Te Ururoa Flavell lodged a formal complaint with the party council and-after a drawn-out process - an agreement was reached at the end of February in which Harawira resigned. In return, the Maori Party promised not to run a candidate against him in the Te Tai Tokerau seat, and he promised not to stand candidates against his former caucus colleagues.

Crunch time came when the Marine and Coastal Areas Bill went through the House, and the Maori Party indicated they would support National because they saw it as a step in the right direction - it repealed the foreshore and seabed legislation to which they were so opposed.

Harawira, however, reminded them this was not what the hikoi demanded.

So now this lone wolf is out there on a crusade for his people. And he's happy.

"I think of it as that Martin Luther King thing. 'Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free at last'. I've felt that ever since, and people have noticed that in my demeanour.

"They say I look more comfortable in myself, more open. They see me around the country, when before, the Maori Party wouldn't let me travel."

Matt McCarten, Herald on Sunday columnist and strategist for the Mana Party, predicted in February that Harawira's expulsion from the Maori Party may be John Key's Achilles heel that takes him down in November. Harawira would garner support in the ground abandoned by Labour - the disaffected poor, hurt by the rises in petrol prices, commodities and GST.

McCarten said the Mana Party would mobilise support in the working classes, both Maori and non-Maori.

Now, after eight weeks campaigning, Harawira says he has found positive reactions from poor working class and beneficiaries. But he's also getting good feedback, he says, from unions.

And if that's true, then Mana would be reaching into Labour's traditional middle class support - the teacher and health unions.

Harawira reckons there's room for two Maori parties in Parliament; they could work together as a stronger bloc, "particularly if we buddy up with the Greens".

But hell will pretty much freeze over before he'd work with National, he says.

"What's the point? They already have their Maori poodle and I don't intend to be another.

"Mind you, it's been made quite clear to me by the people I've been working with that we shouldn't aim to be Labour's poodle either."

The car pulls up outside Maori Television in Newmarket, and Harawira alights.

Across the road, a group of teenagers and young people are waiting. They swoop on him, giggling. Obligingly, he poses with them for photos.

The sunglasses stay on. Harawira doesn't care what's going on in the Act Party - as long as Don Brash doesn't wind up in the Cabinet and start selling off national assets. If that happens, Harawira says he and his supporters will put up a massive fight.

"When you open up your nation and make it available to all and sundry, you're saying to all New Zealanders -black, white and brindle-we don't care if your grandchildren grow up [in a] country owned by Mexicans and everybody else.

"Now that's not a country I want to live in or leave to my mokopuna. It's why I was keen on the foreshore and seabed being vested in Maori title because it means it will always be there for all New Zealanders to enjoy for ever.

"That's why what's good for Maori is good for Aotearoa, "he says.

The day The Don cried

We all know it's been a big week for Don Brash. But it's still a shock when the dry economist takes a gulp of air, and then begins quietly crying.

He's not overtired, just moved by the beauty of democracy. "It was the night the 2002 election," he recalls. "A black tie dinner in Hawke's Bay and a clergyman was asked to say grace. After he'd given thanks for the food and drink, he gave thanks that in 24 hours we would have a new Parliament and nobody would have been shot.

"We are so lucky we can say that. So if we can't sort out our problems, what hope is there?"

The result of that election was disastrous for National, which achieved less than 21 per cent of the party vote - but it was enough to elevate former Reserve Bank governor Don Brash to Parliament.

He soared high in politics, and fell fast. He nearly led National to victory in 2005; a year later he resigned the leadership after a political career that one leaked US Embassy cable said was "characterised by controversy".

Handpicked by National Party president Michelle Boag, Brash was parachuted into the House high up the party list. Two years later he rolled leader Bill English and almost beat Labour in 2005, elevating National's party vote from 21 to 39 per cent.

Brash describes that result as a triumph; something he hopes to repeat in seven months time with Act.

This week, however, Act president Chris Simmons put a different spin on the result. He said Brash had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Certainly, National was not helped by Brash's many gaffes. During the election campaign he bumbled over reporters' repeated questioning about the Exclusive Brethren church - its involvement in funding anti-Green Party pamphlets, and its secret donations to National Party coffers.

The election was followed by the break-up of his marriage amid rumours of an extra-marital affair with businesswoman Diane Foreman.

In November 2006, after writer Nicky Hager published embarrassing emails showing the extent Brash was influenced from outside Parliament in his book Hollow Men, he resigned as leader. A week later he quit Parliament and political life.

Now he's back, more determined than ever. On fire, you could say, as he revels in the huge publicity around his audacious dumping of Rodney Hide - with whom he had been good friends for 15 years.

Brash is so anxious, he makes an onlooker similarly anxious for his wellbeing. Surely it's not healthy to be so intense about finance? Does he really think New Zealanders care about how much the Government's borrowing, when they can still buy their lattes or their KFC meals?

Brash isn't fazed by the knockers and the naysayers who call him extreme, least of all John Key. And he's not planning on toning down his rhetoric to avoid offending people. Why be wishy-washy, he asks, for fear of scaring someone off? Sooner or later, he believes, people will come round to seeing things his way.

He chuckles at the fact that some of his policies like school bulk-funding - described by MPs as "extreme" - were once National Party policy. Now those policies have been abandoned in Key's bid to claim the centre ground in New Zealand politics. Kura Kaupapa Maori schools were started by parents wanting choice in their children's education - does anyone dare label that "extreme far right"?

He's a man on a mission, with no time to waste. "At the moment people are not angry because they're fed a diet of sweets, but they're fed with borrowed money."

Brash denies it but this could be his last hurrah. Right now he's a fit looking 70, predicting it will be a breeze to fight the 2011 and 2014 elections. He's eminently polite to journalists, generous with his time and laughs off past insults from both media and other politicians.

"I don't bear grudges, there's no point."

The cellphone and email have run hot with messages of support, he says, pointing out that many are from National Party members asking him to drag the party to the centre - "the implication being that it's centre-left", he smiles.

In his spartan, white-walled mancave apartment in central Auckland, it would not be hard to focus on booting a government into action. There's not much else to feast your eyes on.

Book-filled shelves are the only proof of human occupation; three paintings remain bubble-wrapped and stacked in a corner; and a modern white dining table with white leather chairs looks unaccustomed to boisterous dinner parties.

It's the pad of someone not settled, and Brash concedes he's been driven to doing something constructive about the country's economic woes. But that doesn't mean he's been busting to go back into politics just for the sake of being an MP.

"I'm going to take a drop in income by going back to Parliament. Not as bad as last time-that time my income dropped by 80 per cent, but I won't be as well off."

It's nine years since this *reporter entered the House of Representatives with Brash, five years since he left Parliament, yet age hasn't wearied him much.

Or is he advantaged by traces of television makeup still evident from the night before and his feisty stoush with John Campbell on TV3? This time round, though, Brash swears he won't be shaped by the spin doctors. "One of the most important lessons I learned from my last term in office was after the Orewa speech when National soared in popularity.

"I should have appreciated, and I didn't, that a party leader can do anything with that popularity. He has the power to put into place good policy. I didn't, and I should have. This time I will."

This time, though, he will not be leading the so-called natural party of Government. He will be leading a very small party, I remind him.

"Small?" he squawks, as the eyebrows shoot up.

"You're making assumptions here. I'll be very disappointed if Act don't get more than 10 per cent of the party vote. I don't want to be unrealistic, we're not going to get 50 per cent. But we'll get 15 per cent."

Key has all but ruled out Brash's grab for the finance portfolio. So how much influence does he think his far right party will have in getting his dry economic policies into legislation? After all, Key ignored the 2025 Taskforce Brash chaired, and withdrew its funding.

Brash flinches again when the far right label is pinned on his Act rosette.

How, he asks, is one law for all "far right"? How is bulk funding, more choice for parents in their children's education, "far right"? How is prudent financial management "far right"?

"We're currently borrowing $300 million a week. I'm so depressed with the quality of economic thinking, if what I'm saying is 'far right'."

And away goes Brash, galloping off on his hobbyhorse bred in the Chicago school of economics: how can this country continue borrowing to buy the house, the furniture, the car, the clothes and the groceries, when we all know it's prudent only to borrow to buy the house?

In 2005 the ratio of government spending to GDP was 29 per cent until Labour "went bonkers with the chequebook in its third term", he claims, spending up large on Working for Families tax credits, universal health subsidies, interest-free student loans, early childhood education subsidies.

Today, on Key's watch, government spending is up to 39 per cent of GDP. Brash says he likes Key. But he's frustrated the Prime Minister has done nothing to reverse these Labour policies.

In four to five years, he'd get this spending down to 29 per cent of GDP again.

"That's the same level as the Labour Government. What's 'far right' about that?"

* Deborah Coddington was an Act MP from 2002 to 2005.

- Herald on Sunday

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